“Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1935. “It may mean that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal and that you are a paralytic.” In other words, her reaction was a sign of someone whose moral sensibilities are sharp and alert. And your non-reaction is a sign of someone who’s not sophisticated, but simply desensitized — your taste and conscience deadened by extensive exposure to a coarse culture.
The sin of pride comes in many forms, and one is generational pride. That’s the attitude which, expressed in a few words, boils down to: “People used to be so benighted, but we know better now.” The notion that change is naturally progress is seldom argued for; it’s simply assumed. As it is with technology, so it surely must be with social and moral views: The past was primitive and backwards; the present is advanced and enlightened.
I saw a lot of this attitude growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, when numerous fundamental institutions and principles came under assault. And I see a lot of it today — when (for example) people dismiss the longstanding, cross-cultural moral consensus on homosexuality, while dismissing the people who hold to it as “bigots” and “haters.” I always want to ask them certain questions which never seem to have crossed their minds. Like: What, exactly, makes your generation morally superior to all those that came before — the people who, y’know, built the civilization which you’ve merely inherited? Is it the endless hours you’ve spent immersed in the worldview generated by movies, TV and music? Is it the thousands of times you’ve heard opinions expressed by celebrities with cute little hashtags like “#NOH8?” Is it your highly developed skills at rapid-fire texting and tweeting?
OK, I’m getting snarky. Point is, some basic humility is in order. If your generation finds itself at odds with the moral views of virtually every other that’s come before, there’s a really good chance that yours is the one that’s gone wrong. The sheer fact that yours disagrees with the historic consensus doesn’t, by itself, prove that. But it certainly should raise the suspicion in your mind. It should move you to careful, respectful examination of what your forebears believed and why they believed it. To simply brush it all aside as ignorant bigotry — to presume that your generation, being the latest generation, has just naturally progressed to a higher level than the others — goes beyond even generational pride. It borders on generational egomania.
Yes, we do regularly make technological progress, if by that we mean that our various gadgets let us do more things that we want to do, more quickly and more efficiently. But that’s no measure of moral progress, and if we use it as ours, then we’ve gone wrong right from the start. Christians should be especially aware of this: We have an eternal standard to measure by.
This isn’t to make an idol out of tradition, of course. Man’s sinfulness can be reflected in traditions as well as in departures from them, and a particular change in a particular society’s values might be an improvement. But there’s no reason to expect that will be a general trend, and there’s some reason to expect the reverse. Christians also should know that mankind on the whole isn’t in the process of moral improvement and isn’t going to be. In the long run, it gets worse (2 Timothy 4:3-4). So if we’re are going to be faithful witnesses, we’re going to be, to a significant extent, counter-cultural. We must find our contentment not by fitting in with the trends, but by fighting the good fight, finishing the race, keeping the faith (2 Timothy 4:7).
Do you find much generational pride in the Millennials you know — including the Christians? How about in yourself?
Give it some thought. The sin-traps we’re most likely to fall into tend to be the ones we don’t recognize.